Are We Jam Idiots?

In his fascinating book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses some interesting tests surrounding jam. That’s right, jam.

In one famous study, Columbia business professor Sheena Iyengar set up two taste booths with a variety of exotic different jams–one small booth with 6 jams and a larger one with 24. “Conventional economic wisdom, of course, says that the more choices consumers have,” wrote Gladwell, “the more likely they are to buy, because it is easier for consumers to find the jam that perfectly fits their needs.” Of those who stopped by the smaller booth, 30% bought jam, while only 3% bought product where there were more choices. Why? “Because buying jam is a snap decision…Snap judgments can be made in a snap because they are frugal, and if we want to protect our snap judgments, we have to take steps to protect that frugality.”

What happens when FSM or Intrada release two discs at once? Because there are only a few choices, are you tempted to get both? What about FSM’s multi-disc releases or the Varese Sarabande Club tradition of usually releasing four discs at once? Does that now become too many choices? Are your snap judgments hampered by any frugality considerations?

Choosing between two scores is easier than 20, if the stack of review and purchased discs sitting on my desk and laptop are any indication. With so many choices, it’s either the incessant whine of “I have nothing to listen to” or the bloated remnants of The Sizzler Effect. There’s nothing “snap” about any decisions I make around film music anymore. And frugality went out the window decades ago.

Gladwell also talks about another jam experiment done by Jonathan Schooler and Timothy Wilson. Consumer Reports put together a panel of leading jam “experts” (who knew there even was such a thing!) and had them rank the top 44 jams. Then Schooler and Wilson then took five separate jams scattered throughout the final list and asked a group of college students to rank them. While the exacts rankings didn’t always match that of the experts, the top-tasting jams still ranked higher than the inferior-tasting jams.

While we film score fans don’t always agree on our rankings of various composers and scores—music, like taste, is, after all, highly subjective—there is general agreement for the most part on who and what ranks where in the bigger picture. I bet you’d find Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams near the top of most lists and I daresay STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE and STAR WARS would rank equally high.

“But what would happen if I were to give you a questionnaire and ask you to enumerate your reasons for preferring one jam to another?” asks Gladwell. In Schooler and Wilson’s experiment, a second group of college students ranked Knott’s Berry Farm, the experts’ “best” jam, second to last and Sorrell Ridge, the expert’s worst jam, third in their written explanation. According to Gladwell, “introspection destroyed people’s ability to solve problems.” In other words, “By making people think about jam, Wilson and Schooler turned them into jam idiots.”

By impairing our ability to solve problems, we come up against “the loss of a much more fundamental ability, namely the ability to know our own minds.” In other words, “we simply don’t have any way of explaining our feelings about jam.”

But what if you did? Could you explain why you like Goldsmith’s music so much or what exactly stirs you about Williams’s “Imperial March”? Is that ability even important? I say yes.

You don’t necessarily need to be able to explain your feelings in technical musical terms. But getting to the heart of a piece of why we prefer certain composers and scores and being able to express what those mean to you engenders passionate, intelligent discussion. The sheer love (or distaste) for a particular score or composer is often ingrained, a product of memory, opinion, and even peer pressure. But what happens when we look into the elements that go into those feelings? Are we afraid to look too deep for fear that those passions are not quite as passionate as we think they are?

Comparing jam to film music is not all that far-fetched. When done properly, both “taste” good. Some people like it sickly sweet, while others do not. Some prefer to lay it on thick, while others enjoy a more decorative spread. Some people like it with pulp or seeds, while others want it to be more smooth. By not allowing yourself to become a “jam idiot,” you get to experience musical tastes and textures in a new way. You might even find the urge to try a new brand you never expected. Either way, I guarantee your taste buds will never be the same again.

  1. Did the experiments include preserves, Jim? Because technically there’s a distinction which I think can have a bearing on the parallel with music. I’m a preserves man myself because of the added richness of texture and taste, and it’s no surprise I have a preference for Golden and Silver Age film composers.

    That’s not to say I’m closed to the possibility of finding that richness among contemporary scores. I recently saw THE GHOST WRITER and found Alexandre Desplat’s excellent work a key element in the enjoyment of the movie. I expect to enjoy that music on it’s own soon – as per your recommendation.

    1. The experiments did not make a distinction and, as far I know, only included jam. I added the preserve elements like pulp and seeds through creative dramatic license. LOL

      I think you’ll really enjoy GHOST WRITER on its own.

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